Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s. He introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of Savannah are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. The eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the insular community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer (2018)

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Review 2.6

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. 

Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can’t understand the cruelty of our current system and place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.  [Source]

This is my first time reviewing a book that I’ve listened to on Audible instead of actively reading in print. I wondered how it would affect my enjoyment and also if it would impact my ability to remember and retain information. I wanted my first book to be nonfiction and I chose Shane Bauer’s follow-up novel to his acclaimed 2016 Mother Jones exposé My Four Months as a Prison Guard. In American Prison, Bauer goes into greater depth and detail regarding his time at Winnfield Prison. He also takes a look at how we got to this sad state of affairs.

Roughly half of American Prison is taken from Bauer’s personal accounts and observations during his time as a prison guard in Louisiana. He details his application process, which was less in-depth than an interview for KFC. Mainly, his potential employers just wanted to make sure Bauer was okay with low wages and mandatory overtime. No psychological review was necessary for the job, which becomes readily apparent once Bauer meets his fellow coworkers. He chronicles his interactions with the inmates as well, and establishes a connection with some of them. I was particularly fascinated by an inmate named Derek, who seems close to actually being friends with Bauer. They discuss the hardships faced by both inmate and guard and the shortcomings of the prison to deal with the needs of both. Derek seems like an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Bauer later informs us he is in prison for multiple counts of rape. Bauer’s keeps a personal account of the ways his personality changed during his time as a corrections officer. His stress level rose, his empathy plummeted, and he suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia. All for nine dollars an hour.

The other half of the book is a supervillain origin story of sorts. Bauer looks at the history of the American private prison system in the hopes of determining at what point it became acceptable to treat humans as business commodities. Sadly the answer is a bit like the hypothetical chicken and egg. Private prisons saw increase an in popularity during the latter half of the 19th century, and Bauer argues that this was connected to the ending of slavery after the Civil War. State-run plantations which previously relied on slaves for free labor now had to look elsewhere, and a few enterprising eyes fell upon the convict population. By using convict labor, the plantations could continue operating at minimum cost and everyone from the wardens to the politicians could continue lining their pockets. Bauer follows the history of various state-run prison systems in the southern American states as they went from being for-profit farms to being for-profit holdings pens for millions of incarcerated individuals.

American Prison offers a bleak but realistic depiction of the current state of affairs in America’s private prison. The epilogue, in which Bauer recounts the fallout from his Mother Jones expose, was particularly bittersweet. Apparently, his story caught the attention of the Obama administration, and a law was passed abolishing private contracts for federal penitentiaries. Two years later, the Trump administration revoked the law, and now more inmates than ever are behind the bars of private prisons. On a more positive note, the shareholders are doing swell.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Prison here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition of this book is narrated by James Fouhey, and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!